The majority of battleground districts in this fall’s critical elections for Virginia House of Delegates are in the state’s cities and suburbs, but Republicans are also targeting a rare breed in Virginia politics: Democrats who represent mostly rural districts.
Republicans portray Delegates Roslyn Tyler and Chris Hurst as radical liberals who ignore their constituents in Southside and southwestern Virginia, predominantly rural districts that include some of the state’s most economically depressed areas. The elections will determine whether Democrats can maintain their hold on the state’s increasingly conservative rural pockets, and whether Republicans can reclaim any ground in areas where opposition to Donald Trump drove Republicans from office.
Democrats hold a 55-45 House majority, but Republicans are targeting the seats of 13 potentially vulnerable Democrats, including some in rural districts and others in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads suburbs. According to Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, Virginia has experienced a geographical sorting over the last 30 years, with the Democratic Party increasingly becoming a party of cities and suburbs, while the Republican Party is seen as the party of rural areas.
Hurst, a former TV journalist seeking a third term, is being challenged by Republican Jason Ballard, an attorney, Army veteran, and Pearisburg town council member. Tyler will face Republican Otto Wachsmann, a pharmacist who narrowly lost the 2019 election by 506 votes. Conservatives are arguing against Democratic incumbents using national themes. Tyler was portrayed by the Republican State Leadership Committee PAC as anti-law enforcement, while Hurst was portrayed as tax-happy and unconcerned about inflation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans point to Tyler’s membership in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which called for a slew of police reforms following Floyd’s death, including “divesting from large law enforcement budgets and investing more in communities,” which the GOP committee PAC claims amounts to police defunding.
Hurst says he voted for the 2020 gas tax increase, the first in more than three decades, because the state needs the money to pay for long-standing transportation infrastructure issues that “Republicans for 20 years in control failed to address.” Hurst, who was elected to his seat in 2017, entered politics after his girlfriend was gunned down while conducting an interview for their Roanoke television station on live television.
In both races, Republican challengers claim that the Democratic incumbents haven’t paid enough attention to their districts, which haven’t prospered as much as other parts of the state, particularly northern Virginia, a wealthier and more populous region.
Wachsmann claims that the Democratic Party’s “extreme liberal agenda” threatens the rural way of life in Southside Virginia, which stretches from south of Richmond to the North Carolina border and includes vast tracts of open land as well as the cities of Emporia and Franklin.
In a region where hunting and skeet shooting are long-held traditions, farming and forestry are two of the most important industries. The Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance endorsed Tyler, writing in an editorial that she has “consistently voted to support the values of rural Virginia.” Hurst’s district includes large rural areas in southwestern Virginia, as well as the cities of Radford and Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech dominates and Democrats have a built-in constituency among the 30,000 student body.
Hurst’s opponent has chastised him for supporting a failed bill that would have ended qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity shields officers from being held accountable for alleged wrongdoing.
Hurst claims to be a friend of law enforcement and has advocated for recently approved pay raises. He also voted in favor of police reforms approved by the legislature in 2020, such as legislation prohibiting no-knock search warrants and allowing localities to establish civilian review boards with subpoena power and disciplinary authority.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, one of only two Democrats in the state Senate who represent predominantly rural districts, began his political career in the House of Delegates in the early 1990s, when Democrats held seats in many of the state’s rural districts. Deeds believes that many people mistake the Republican Party for being the party of rural America.